While looking through old civil birth records from St Kitts, I noticed a registration for the child of Carl C. Lyon, a photographer in the capital city Basseterre. The name rang a bell. A photograph has been passed down by my husband’s Kittitian family, featuring his great-grandmother Margaret Johanna Cannonier (1868-1940) and her two sisters. On the back of the photo is a decorative logo for “C C Lyon St Kitts West Indies”.
The date of the photo would be somewhere shy of July 1882, as that was when one of the three sisters died. The second passed away in 1897, leaving only Margaret Johanna to marry and raise five daughters. Looking further into Carl C. Lyon led to an interesting story of a well traveled man who was an early professional photographer in New York City as well as the West Indies.
Carl Constantine Lyon appears in Brooklyn, NY in 1856, in his citizenship declaration. His witness states that he has known Carl Lyon for at least five years. As his birth year was about 1837, that would mean Carl came to the United States when he was no older than 14. In other records, he is listed as born in the West Indies, or more specifically, a Swedish colony in the Caribbean called St Barthélemy. By the 1860 United States Census, Carl is a 23 year old living in Brooklyn and working in the new field of daguerrotypes. The daguerrotype was the first photographic process, introduced to the French Academy of Sciences in 1839 by Louis Jacques Mandé Deguerre. Pictures were printed on laboriously prepared silver-coated copper plates, and developed using mercury vapors and a number of chemical compounds. In the 1850s, New York City was a center of daguerreotype production, with hundreds of studios in the city offering portraits set in front of elaborate backdrops, velvet tapestries and chandeliers. By 1860, the daguerreotype was quickly losing favor and giving way to cheaper and easier photographic techniques.
Carl appears in Brooklyn city directories of 1863, 64, and 65, listed as a photographer living at 61 Poplar Street. In 1866, we can assume after Carl moved out, the Brooklyn Children’s Aid Society was founded at that address. They provided shelter and education in a trade for orphaned or abandoned city children, particularly for news boys who made a meager living selling newspapers on street corners.
What happened to Carl after 1865? In 1866, he is listed as a ship passenger with a wife and three year old son Carl Jr., traveling from St Barthélemy (St. Barts) to Philadelphia. By September of 1869, he and his wife Mary A. (maiden name Grant) are in St Kitts living on Central Street in Basseterre, when their daughter Janette was born. By 1875, the NY State Census shows Carl and wife Mary back in Brooklyn, with their two children. Carl and his daughter are listed as born in the West Indies, while Mary is from Scotland and Carl Jr was born in Brooklyn. Their address is 51 Hicks Street, a beautiful structure built in 1831 that still stands today in the expensive Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.
By the early 1880s, Carl C. Lyon was most likely back in St Kitts to take the photograph of great-grandmother Margaret Johanna Cannonier. In the 1905 NY State Census, Carl is again in Brooklyn, living on his own as a widower on Court Street. His traveling days finally end in 1914 in Basseterre, St Kitts, according to his death record, which states that he was then a 75 year old photographer living in Rosemary Street.
- St Kitts and Nevis civil registration Register of births (1859-1867), familysearch.org, 1990
- The Met, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Daguerrian Era and Early American Photography on paper, 1839-1860, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004
- The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, Daguerreotypes
- Building of the day: 57 Poplar Street (in the 1860s, the building was referred to as 61 Poplar), The Brownstoner, 2011
- St Kitts and Nevis civil registration Registers of Deaths, 1911-1920, familysearch.org, 1990